Sunday, March 1, 2015
This past year, we raised and sold 1,000 chickens on our farm outside White River Junction. We have a strong market for chicken, and every year we can sell this many birds with a reasonable return on time and financial investment. Why, you might ask, if the market is there, don’t we sell more birds? It’s simple. The 1,001st bird would set me back tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s why.
The state of Vermont and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulate the production and sale of meat in Vermont. (New Hampshire’s approach is similar.) This oversight has been, by and large, wildly successful in improving human health. Nasty stuff like listeria, trichinosis and botulism, which used to lay our ancestors low by the bushel, have been largely eliminated from the food supply. We’ve accomplished this success through what might be called a “facilities” approach to meat production: We require animals to be slaughtered and processed inside facilities that can be cleaned and inspected and, in most cases, overseen by inspectors during their hours of operation.
All the larger livestock animals sold in this country today, like cattle, sheep and swine, have to be slaughtered inside such facilities. There is no exception to this — if cash is going to trade hands, animals have to be slaughtered inside under inspection. That’s true whether you’re a hobbyist selling one pig or a corporation slaughtering a pig a minute.
With chickens, you can avoid the facilities route if you meet certain criteria: you clearly label your birds as uninspected, you sell whole birds directly to the customer who is going to cook them, and you sell no more than 1,000 birds per year.
This so-called “chicken exemption” is widely used by farmers in the Twin States, with more than a dozen farms in the Upper Valley making use of it. But more and more, we’re coming up against the facilities limitation, both with chickens and with larger mammals.
The main problem with facilities is that they are expensive to build and maintain. If you’re a huge producer of meat, no big deal — you build your own slaughterhouse in your vertically integrated company. But if you’re a small player (and every farm in New England is small by virtue of our tight landforms and small holdings), you’re left competing for limited slaughterhouse space, usually in the fall, when the grass runs out and every other farmer is jostling with you for appointments.
The facilities approach has a second problem, besides hurting the little guy: It tends to centralize problems and make them difficult to sort out. We’ve all read the stories about an outbreak of, say, e coli in beef, which unfold over the course of years as inspectors try to figure out which farm brought which animals to which slaughterhouses and then sold them under which labels to which supermarkets. After the recalls are finished, the lawyers move in.
The meat slaughter issue is coming to a head right now in Vermont because the number of farms, the number of farmers and the acreage devoted to agriculture are all increasing. Due to our rolling hills, however, our farms are small. Due to the limited flat land, our growth potential is primarily in raising meat. And due to the facilities approach to meat safety, we’re having a tough time making the economics work out.
To its everlasting credit, the Vermont Legislature is taking the problem seriously and proposing potential solutions. For example, thanks to a two-year experiment set up by the Legislature last year, we were able to slaughter 25 lambs on our farm last fall and sell them to our customers. Of course, we had to meet some relatively strict conditions: We had to pre-sell the animals to our customers; we required that each of them purchase a whole animal; we hired a third-party professional to help us with the slaughter; and we filled out some paperwork for the state. I was happy to do all this because it meant that I could keep the lambs at home on the farm, where they were born and raised and felt comfortable, and I was able to avoid the expense and scheduling and transportation problems associated with finding a slaughterhouse.
From my perspective as a farmer, it’s time to build on the success of the chicken exemption, and on the success of this trial program, by creating a formal certification or licensing system for farmers who are selling directly to their customers.
Many farmers lack the capital or space to build fancy facilities on our farms, and many of us don’t want to inflict the stress of transportation on our animals. Yet we all have the time, especially when it’s below zero and there’s snow on the ground, to attend classes in food safety, proper livestock handling, appropriate equipment and tools, and disease epidemiology. Give small farmers the option of achieving food safety goals through education as opposed to construction. Animals can be processed safely, cleanly and respectfully on their home farms — without expensive facilities — if the farmer knows what he or she is doing.
What we need is a three-tiered approach to regulating meat.
At the high-volume “meat producer” level, the state should continue to require inspectors and inspected facilities. At the small-farm “direct sales” level, the state should require training and expertise as opposed to facilities. And at the tiny “subsistence” level, the state should allow people to, for example, raise and slaughter a limited number of animals without inspection or certification — two pigs, for example — so someone can sell the second one to a neighbor to cover the cost of raising the first. This is a time-honored tradition that has persisted for generations despite being nominally illegal and, as long as we’re fixing the meat regulatory system, should be acknowledged with more than just a wink and a nod.
The rub, of course, is figuring out where to draw the lines between the three tiers. The “subsistence” level is pretty easy, since the goal is to legalize the backyard hobbyist: something like one beef cow, two pigs, three sheep or goats, and maybe a dozen chickens or so.
For the small-farm “direct sales” level, the 25-lamb limit that’s part of the current experiment feels about right, though it would be nice if farmers could raise 25 lambs and 10 pigs per year instead of having to choose one or the other (as the law currently provides.) For chickens, the current 1,000-bird limit is too low because building facilities doesn’t make financial sense for bird number 1,001. With proper training and certification, that limit could be raised to 2,000 or 3,000 birds, at which point facilities start to make financial sense.
Right now, small farmers in both states are working backward — looking at what the regulations allow and then deciding how many animals to raise. What we should instead be doing is figuring out how many animals our farms can support in an ecologically appropriate way, and then, if we find we have a market for those animals, turning to the state to find a regulatory framework that works at that scale.
The market for local meat is here and growing. The Vermont Legislature is trying to help local farmers meet the demand. Adding an educational and licensing approach for direct-sales farmers would be a big step in the right direction.
Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer who lives in White River Junction.